The Common Law

COVID-19 and Austin – answering your legal questions

Austin is a different city since "The Common Law" issued its last article in February. This article starts a series on legal issues raised by COVID-19. You ask. We do our best to answer. Let's start with the city's ongoing shelter-in-place order (the "Order"). Here goes:

When does the city of Austin's shelter-in-place ordinance expire?

Mayor Adler issued the city's "Stay Home – Work Safe" ordinance (Order 20200324-007) on March 24, and it took effect on March 25. The ordinance requires that all individuals currently living in the city of Austin shelter at their place of residence unless certain exceptions apply. The order continues through April 13; however, the order can be modified by a subsequent order. All indications at this point suggest the city will extend the order beyond April 13.

I clean pools. Am I good to continue working?

Yes. Pool cleaners are expressly designated as a critical trade under the essential business section. "Plumbers, electricians, exterminators, pool cleaners, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences" are permitted to conduct business. See Order Section 6 (f) (ix).

Can I take my son on our two-person kayak and paddle around Lady Bird Lake (assuming we keep an appropriate distance from anyone)? We have stayed at home for the last two weeks, are generally healthy, and have not had any COVID-19 symptoms.

One of the essential activities that is an exception to the shelter-in-place order is "outdoor activity." Per the order, "individuals may engage in outdoor activity, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, bicycling, or running, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section." The outdoor activities specifically listed in the order are not exhaustive. Kayaking the lake seems like it would fall under "outdoor activity," which means it would be an essential activity, which in turn means you can leave your house for this activity. You must maintain appropriate social distancing at all times – if you can't do that, don't kayak; stay at home.

My neighbor decided to leave town and has asked me to go to her house daily to feed her cat. Is that allowed?

Yes. Section 6 (b) (v) states that you may leave your house to care for a family member or pet in another household.

I've been told that liquor stores fall under the essential business category and can remain open. That seems crazy. Is it true?

Crazy or not, it's true. The city's order specifically lists liquor stores as an essential business. The city determined that liquor stores sell "essential supplies" and therefore will remain open. See Section 6 (f) (ii).

Someone told me that the bank I use will soon be shutting down due to the shelter-in-place order. Is that right?

No. Banks and related financial institutions – places like credit unions, title companies, and insurance companies – are considered essential businesses that will remain open. If a specific bank branch is closing, it is not because of the city's order.

I've seen a bunch of folks in my neighborhood violating the shelter-in-place order. What's their punishment if caught?

Anyone who violates the shelter-in-place order violates Austin City Code Section 2-6-24. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or confinement in jail not to exceed 180 days. Police officers, city code inspectors, and the fire marshal are allowed to enforce this order. Call 311 (not 911) if you see large groups of people that appear in violation of the order.

Mayor Adler has stated publicly that there simply aren't enough enforcement officials for the number of city residents. The order will work if everyone reads it and follows it. It's up to us flatten the curve.


More COVID-19 legal questions? Rent payments? Employment issues? Submit your questions to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. We'll do our best to answer as many questions as possible.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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